Cinephilia in Scotland

Cinephilia was the buzzword at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that, of course, but the 2011 edition (the festival’s sixty-fifth—it’s the oldest continuously running film festival in the world), which ran from June 15 through June 26,seemed particularly invested in examining what it means to be a serious movie lover in this day and age. This was made explicit in the many sidebar events, which supplemented a rich and diverse lineup of films past and present. (This cinephile was delighted to settle down in his seat for both a pristine new digital restoration of Alexander Mackendrick’s riotous 1949 Ealing Studios comedy Whisky Galore and the latest—and last, according to the director—heavy-duty slab of capital-C cinema from the forbidding Hungarian Béla Tarr, The Turin Horse; you couldn’t conceive of less similar films.)

I was pleased to have been invited to speak, alongside a commendably heterogeneous roster of guests, at an event titled Project: New Cinephilia, a rigorous all-day session of talks and five-minute presentations called provocations, discussion groups and short screenings designed to jump-start conversations about cinema culture in the twenty-first century: how we watch film, write about it, view it, teach it. It was a swift day; what could have been a stuffy panel was instead a lively exchange of ideas. With the event, explains curator and critic Damon Smith, who co-organized it with Kate Taylor, “we wanted to avoid tired conversations about the death of cinema and the crisis of film criticism and come at all of that from a different, more energetic, and hopefully rejuvenating place.” Smith also explains why Edinburgh may have been the ideal venue for such an initiative: “In the seventies, under Lynda Myles, the festival was closely allied with Screen magazine and held all kinds of theoretical conferences that stood in opposition to mainstream cinema culture. So in my wildest imaginings, I thought this project might inspire a modest renewal of such activist-oriented cinephilia.”

Though many topics were covered (the vagaries of art-film distribution; the ins and outs of starting a film magazine; such new developments in film criticism as podcasts, video essays, and even comic books), I was especially intrigued, as an American participant (one of the few), to learn more about the state of art-cinema appreciation in the UK.

The nagging question of whether the theatrical experience will remain crucial to the future of cinephilia in the face of new ways of viewing—DVD and Blu-ray, for sure, but also downloading, instant streaming, and on-demand—was the one underlying Project: New Cinephilia. So it was cheering to meet my fellow panelist Jason Wood, director of programming for Curzon Cinemas, which is a specialized, privately owned commercial cinema operator and the UK’s premier independent theatrical exhibitor, with a chain of theaters located primarily in London. We often associate film programming with the individual sensibilities of curators at movie houses and cinematheques, but meeting Wood reminded me not to forget the essential part of the process provided by chain theaters and distributors. Wood, a true cinephile—he has also contributed to Sight & Sound, curated the BFI Southbank’s recent Nicolas Roeg retrospective, and edited the book Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview—was on hand to discuss Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as an example of a film that rides the fine line between mainstream product and art film and thus proves a bit of a conundrum for exhibitors.

Wood, who is dedicated to showcasing important world cinema for the widest possible audience, is optimistic about the future. He told me, “The exhibition model is constantly evolving, but audiences seem to be recognizing and actively embracing the change. Art-house audiences today face a proliferation of options, increasing ticket prices, and a wider choice regarding how and where they choose to consume a film, so I’m incredibly happy and relieved to report that art film is thriving, despite these obstacles.” Curzon, which works in partnership with the UK’s leading art-film distributor, Artifical Eye, is always looking for ways to bolster its products, which include works by such crucial contemporary auteurs as Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Andrea Arnold, and Lars von Trier; it demands, for instance, the highest standard of technical presentation (its theater circuit is now fully digital) and often complements new releases with contextualizing talks, including filmmaker Q&As.

Another UK institution committed to preserving and enhancing the theatrical experience is Edinburgh’s Filmhouse (pictured), which serves as the heart of the Scottish city’s cinema community, and which I got to explore on a number of occasions while visiting. Filmhouse was founded by the Edinburgh Film Guild, the organization behind the Edinburgh Film Festival, in 1979. Repurposed from a church that had fallen out of use, it is the festival’s primary venue (though not the only one of note—I took in Whisky Galore at the classical Cameo Cinema, known both for its status as one of Scotland’s oldest movie theaters and for being championed by Quentin Tarantino).

Filmhouse, with its three screening rooms (the largest has 280 seats), its friendly and always full café, and its lobby DVD store, stocked with an excellent selection of titles, is a bastion of cinephilic goodwill at an uncertain time for moviegoing. This reality is not lost on its head of programming, Rod White, although, like Wood, he is nothing but hopeful: “I see all these advances as complementary—much in the same way that VHS looked like the death of cinema but then only seemed to encourage interest in the medium. Our attendances have been climbing steadily over the last ten years. For the foreseeable future, there will be a need for cinemas such as ours because people like the shared experience, to feel part of something.”

White, who worked his way up to his current position after starting out as a movie-loving usher, is a perfect example of the kind of unswervingly loyal cinephile who will help keep this culture going strong. “There’s no greater pleasure in this job than putting on a season of films you love and have people turn up in numbers to see it,” says White. “We recently ran a series of Weimar-era realist cinema and regularly sold out the shows. I often worry we place too much emphasis on context, but time and again it seems to matter to audiences.” In that vein, what would White’s dream series be? “I’ve always had a hankering for an entire retrospective of the key titles in the history of British cinema. I’ll do that before I pack it in.”

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